Just a warning: prepare yourselves for a which came first, the chicken or the egg argument here, friends.
I’m a step-parent; I have two sons that became mine at the ages of 3 and 7. I myself was a child in my 30’s at the time and probably the least mature of the three of us. My wife and I loved watching horror movies after the kids had gone to bed. I also had been a longtime fan and attendee of Knott’s Scary Farm and Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights before that. We are a somewhat divided house, because she is a Krueger fan and I am pure Voorhees devotee, but as they say sometimes, opposites attract, and we manage to make it work (mostly by avoiding “that crossover versus film”).
Around the time I became step-dad, Horror Nights was having a good year, with a trifecta of mazes dedicated to the big 3 of horror: Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface. This started a series of annual pilgrimages (often several date nights) each year to enjoy the terror offerings. It didn’t take long for the kids to take notice, and despite numerous warnings, they were soon begging us to take them along.
Like most parents, we tried to break them of the idea partially because we still loved our date nights, but also largely out of concern for the inevitable nightmares and potential therapy inducing trauma that might be caused. We started exposing them to some of the classic horror films, which even at ripe old ages of 9 and 5, they largely laughed at. Thank you, Internet, for making the stuff that scared the crud out of us in our pre-teens a gigantic joke to our kids. But eventually, the 9 year old wore us down.
Some people wisely start their young Halloween fanatics on smaller neighborhood houses, but not having a knowledge of the diversity of home haunts or access to something truly amazing like Mabel’s 6 Feet Under (which we still lament the loss of), we decided to try taking him to a weeknight (meaning cheaper) night of HHN in Hollywood. And it is here that I believe is the perfect place to start my suggestions for introducing your little monsters to the world of theme park haunt monsters.
Suggestion 1: Don’t over invest either time or money into the night.
I knew going in, and based on how my wife had taken time to adjust herself to the concepts of scare-zones and mazes, that sometimes you just have to know going in that you aren’t going to stay all that long. If you are expecting to try and cram all of your scares into a night when someone (especially young) is going to see this stuff for the first time…well, prepare to be very very disappointed and frustrated.
In an attempt to limit the overall impact, I made it very clear that we would leave if it was clear it was too much for my son. Anyone who attends Hollywood HHN knows the scares start about 10 feet inside the gate, and all the narrow passages into the park are scare-zones: usually chainsaw-buzzing, stilt walkers startling, flames spontaneously shooting, young girls screaming and running kinds of scare-zones.
We managed to get our 9 year old (very much wedging himself in between us tightly) into the opening show of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure (I know, bad parenting compounded with bad parenting) as we hoped maybe a few uncomfortable laughs were a better way for him to acclimate to the place rather than the fear of being overrun by either chainsaw wielding killers, or worse, trampled by young teens pretending to be terrified. Which leads me to…
Suggestion 2: Ease into it and have an exposure plan.
Suggestion 3: Do your own parental recon first.
These two things go hand and hand. My wife and I had already been to the event that year. We knew which houses had the biggest scares, which scare-zones were the most intense, and where the “safe spots” were in the park. After we exited Bill and Ted and seeing our son was still way too freaked out to really enjoy even a moment of the experience, we took him to a nearby fast food place. We got him to sit at a table against a solid wall (and yes, he was even constantly turning around to see if the monsters could somehow come through the solid brick restaurant wall), got him some food that we knew he would only take a few bites of, and let him watch from the relative safety of the food court what was happening all around him.
Suggestion 4: Get down to their level and ask a lot of questions about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing.
When my son began asking if we really could leave as soon as he wanted, I knew he was already done for the evening. My wife and I exchanged a knowing glance. We told him we were proud of him for even attempting to face the experience, threw out 95% of his uneaten meal, and started back towards the exit.
Suggestion 5: Know your exit strategy and try to end on an ‘up’ experience.
The fastest way through the park to the exit was direct from the restaurant where we were eating (I miss you Flintstones Bedrock BBQ) right through the chainsaws to the exit. But I didn’t want the night to end with terror without my son being able to take back some of the control and feeling like he had really conquered part of the fear.
So we diverted him through a nearby scare-zone that was WWII undead themed, which was very empty, well lit, and wide open. We walked right down the middle of it. The scare actors were able to see how fearful he really was, and a few even tried to approach him in a friendly lighthearted way (which is not easy to do when you are wearing Nazi stormtrooper helmets with skeleton masks.)
After we made it through, we praised him for being so brave. He smiled the first genuine smile we had seen since he walked through the gate, confirmed that he had enough, and got him the hell out of there as fast as his little legs could manage.
Suggestion 6: Keep following up after the scares; emphasize the positive.
Yes, we talked all the way home after our brief (1 hour) journey into the depths of HHN, yes we checked on him several times that night, and yes, for the whole rest of the year pointed out that he faced at 9 something that many people (even some adults) are afraid to experience at all. By the time the next year rolled around, not only did he want to try again, but his 6 year old brother insisted he was ready to go and would not be scared at all. Isn’t sibling rivalry amazing sometimes?!?
We took them both to Knott’s Scary Farm that year. Having been there to do our recon, we knew that the La Llorona maze was very bright, kind of short on scares, and perfect to get them through as their first maze. We avoided Ghost Town until the end of the night when they both wanted to try it. We laughed a lot. I mean a lot a lot, and it started a family tradition which kept the four of us thick as thieves every Halloween season until the boys hit their teens (and naturally wanted to go with their friends instead).
So how young is too young? Honestly, only you and your child know for sure (See? Chicken and egg argument…sorry). I keep seeing younger and younger kids delighted with sliding monsters and mazes than ever before. But there are things you can to do as a parent to try and ensure that first dip of the toe into this most special season is at least as exciting, positive, and fear-reducing as possible when that time finally comes.
For my family it marked the beginning of something that brought us all closer, something we still treasure to this day. I certainly hope, if you are a fan, that it can be the same for you.
I will add this as well, not just as a plug for the HorrorBuzz Knott’s Scary Farm event, but because it has become a great way to show younger and older “first timers” just how detailed and scare-free these mazes/houses are under the work lights and before the monsters arrive. Having those behind the screams tours early in the event day is great. I have seen many families attend these events and it makes a huge difference for the kids to see exactly how “fake” it all looks before all the elements are in place in the dark. I honestly wish they had been around when my boys were younger and first wanted to go.
For now, good luck with your kids and we hope to see them in the fog!